Hey, all, Happy Thanksgiving weekend. It seems only appropriate to now say a few words in honor of the First Nations or American Indians or Native Americans or the [fill in the names of many specific tribes].
A couple of months ago, we released a discussion of American Indian philosophy. Given that we knew nothing at all about this going in, we did our best to be modest about it, and set audience expectations low: This was us PEL guys, with our ongoing PEL project and its recurrent concerns (e.g., the occasional approach to process ontology), trying to get a basic handle on how to approach a mostly oral tradition, and, honestly, try to get a feel for how to use an academic approach to bypass the goofy New Age way that American Indian philosophy has been appropriated by more than a few good-hearted, philosophy-inclined people.
What I did NOT want to do was just to repeat in a slightly different form what we did recently with our “white privilege” and then James Baldwin episodes: We spent the first 20 minutes of our discussion admitting that our relationship as white dudes who don’t personally know any Native folks well made this whole thing problematic, but I felt that the concerns were no more serious from an academic perspective than our attempts to study Confucius, or even Jesus.
As folks subsequently pointed out to us on Twitter and in comments on this blog, thinking “from an academic perspective” with regard to this topic is itself problematic, since this is not, like Confucianism or Christianity, a tradition that turned from oral to written centuries ago and has had whole empires going to bat for it and arguing over various traditions within it. These are living, still oppressed people, and so our treatment should have reflected that, and taken extra care beyond our normal episode procedures to make sure that they were portrayed in a light that they would approve of… which is not to say that being critical wouldn’t have a place, but having a real, living philosopher within this tradition on the show to give us the best possible material available would have been better than what we actually did.
Let me remind those of you who may not have been listening to the show for many years of our intent here at PEL: We try to inspire people to read philosophical works and make them confident enough to form their own opinions about them. In early episodes, I was positively adamant that it doesn’t even matter that you really understand the reading as the author intended it or as scholars understand it (after all, you can always circle back to it later, perhaps with a better guide, to get a more accurate interpretation), but what matters is that you, the reader/listener, have more food for thought and tidbits that you can try to apply to your own life.
So yes, by design, this show is about cultural appropriation, and not necessarily in a respectful way: Heroes like Plato and Kant have been revered too long and too hard, and we now should stop worshipping the dead. What you, a living person, might make of the work of these folks in your actual lives is much more important than some words on paper or the reputations of those long gone. Believe me, I’m aware of how problematic it is to turn this particular attitude away from revered Western figures toward figures from oppressed communities.
In any case, I think we’ve pretty thoroughly gotten over that initial emphasis (which maybe was only mine… certainly not Wes’s), and we normally try to read secondary sources and overall to not misrepresent what we’re talking about. This episode was no exception; I scoured the web and YouTube for anything that would help us approach this respectfully and with what thoroughness we could afford given time constraints. But we’re not experts and have never claimed to me. We hope, still, that there’s something useful to listeners in witnessing our attempts to grasp strange and difficult ideas, even if we ultimately fail.
Thus, we’re not generally too keen on experts. The project exhibits more integrity as a continuous, exhibitionist journey of learning if we don’t have any guests at all (meaning it’s OUR learning, which you’ve been witness to over a long damned time), and when we have guests, we’d almost rather have fellow seekers, and our guest Jim (a former grad student, now a blue collar worker) certainly qualifies.
We occasionally break this rule, but it works best when, as with Law Ware, the professor-guest is a fan of the show and understands how to have a many-person conversation. The average academic does not know how to do this, and most that we bring on to exhibit their own expertise certainly don’t know how to do this, which often necessitates that we have time after their appearance to do our normal discussion and treat the part with them as more or less an audience-observable text, that may not be substantially different than if we just pointed you at one of their existing YouTube lectures. Sure, I think (I hope) we get some good questions in, and we try to get them to relate what they have to say to our ongoing concerns, but, for example, if you listen to Robert Wright on our podcast, you’re still going to get basically the same story that you got if you listened to him on one of the many other podcasts he’s been on recently.
Our recent “Second Opinions” concept (which was suggested by a listener! I don’t recall who) gives us another option: We do our song and dance first, and then we get someone who actually knows what he’s talking about to come correct us. We just did that with Russ Roberts, and I think it worked well. I mean, we were talking at a high enough level of generalization that we didn’t really attempt to critique what we were hearing from him much, but we’d already expressed our deep skepticism about the so-called “free market” in our previous discussion of Adam Smith, and Russ provided a thoughtful counterpoint, which we leave to the audience and our future episodes to cogitate upon further.
Though I had THOUGHT that having Jim on our American Indian philosophy episode would make having this sort of follow-up not really necessary, some of you have voiced the opinion that no, we should really connect directly with a bona fide, publishing, teaching philosopher (or maybe he or she doesn’t go by that academic designation, but someone credentialed), with native heritage, actually living now in this tradition.
I’d be very open to seeing this happen regarding the American Indian philosophy episode. Over Twitter I called upon our critics to suggest some guest names (I asked Jim, too) or volunteer their own expertise, to recommend an additional set of readings and come on the show. Though I received a few suggestions, I didn’t get anyone qualified to commit to the effort of joining us (and really, I don’t blame them; most academics aren’t particularly interested in our little reading group project), and of course, we have many other philosophical interests that pull us this way and that, and so we’ve already recorded on more Nietzsche and are currently engrossed in William James.
Before either of those things happened, I read the entirety of Vine Deloria Jr.’s The Metaphysics of Modern Existence, which had been recommended by multiple listeners. Vine is dead, but I reached out to his son, who was unwilling to appear himself but did clue me in on another possible guest. I ended up not wanting to go in this direction, because, I’m sorry to say, the book was ultimately not something I wanted to force my fellow podcasters to read. I plan to explain this in more detail, seeing as I put in the time reading it, but I’ll just say for the moment that the concluding chapter of the book is an extended rant about how modern philosophers and scientists unjustifiably dismiss astrology. He’s a really great writer, very well read, with some insightful things to say, but too much of the book dwelt on the New Age twaddle of his day (’60s–’70s) and as a theologian (non-Christian, but still), he was caught in struggles like trying to argue for creationism against evolutionary theory that, while fascinating from an intellectual history point of view, would not serve us well if our point in reading him was to exhibit a current Native thinker of unquestionable philosophic integrity.
So, I’m asking you folks who care about this now: We’re not an academic organization or academic publication with all the time in the world to chase down leads on this. If any of you who are actually knowledgeable in this area of thought would like to volunteer yourself or your favorite professor or writer to continue this discussion with us, we’ll consider it.
One thing I found interesting in this case—as opposed to objections we received when we covered polarizing figures like Ayn Rand, or some people didn’t like our initially anti-theological take on Aristotle, or thought we didn’t do justice to Merleau-Ponty or Lacan*, or hated our dismissive attitude toward Stoicism (which we totally made up for by treating it again with Massimo!)—I didn’t actually hear from any of our critics any serious arguments or augmentations regarding the philosophical content of the episode, just complaints that our methodology in doing this wasn’t sufficiently respectful, despite our efforts.
For example, our part 1 (MUCH less interesting, I think, than part 2 of the discussion, where we actually got down to business) spent a lot of time basically trying to figure out how important the supernatural (i.e., superstitious from our point of view) aspects of Native thinking are in figuring out their philosophy. Now, no one objects when we have similar conversations about supernatural elements in Buddhism, but that’s not my point here. In turning to Vine Deloria, Jr., I hoped to find some more sophisticated, non-supernatural take on these ideas of rationality and epistemic openness, but really, I saw virtually the same take on these topics in that book as in what we read and presented: It’s OUR fault as Westerners that we can’t be epistemically humble enough to admit that Native wisdom regarding, for example, the synchronicity of the movements of the heavenly bodies with the workings of human affairs, might actually be true, or (and in what I’m about to say here, Deloria was much more extreme than what we’d read) that Native creation stories might not be more or less literally true. But this “humbleness” echoes all too familiarly the claim of Biblical literalists to admit that science is after all a human creation, and very flawed at that, so maybe the wisdom of the ages should trump it. Instead of saying that our dwelling on superstition was demeaning to modern Native thinkers, I’d like to hear, at least in outline, how what I’ve just said is a misinterpretation, or not representative of some very interesting Native thinkers whose views we ought to share with the world.
As Jim said, maybe they don’t want to share their wisdom with our tin Western ears, and they certainly have no obligation to come on our show. I hope that by having this discussion, flawed as it may have been, we’ve helped inspire interest in this neglected topic. I think that good outweighs any harm we may have done in giving a presentation that doesn’t fit the political specifications of some particular listeners.
One Native listener seemed to appreciate what we did (and was not so sympathetic with our detractors): a Canadian fellow named John Beaubien. He was good enough to give a YouTube response to the episode.
Thanks to John, and thanks to anyone willing to contribute in a positive dialogue about these thorny issues and contribute to the availability to the public of philosophy of any and all stripes.
*OK, I’ll admit it: The Lacan snobs were mostly not very helpful in their critiques either.